Ryle’s Advice on the Church of England
Many earnest, well-intentioned, and clearly articulate practising Christians believe the Church of England is a spent force unworthy of support—that all that is missing is the hand-writing on the wall of General Synod, saying, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” as happened at Belshazzar’s banquet hall the night of his downfall. Out of conviction, many have seceded.
It is easy to understand why many believe and have done so. The Church of England is in a mess. However, in the midst of the mess are thousands of faithful clergy and many times more faithful members of the laity. They faithfully and prayerfully go about the day to day work of making disciples for Jesus. They don’t look for the praise of men or for ecclesiastical preferment. They may not engage in sparkling conversation or know the difference between a good claret or port but they know the One in whom they have believed and can share that belief with others. They believe He will do as promised and so they fight the good fight. They believe Him to be worthy and themselves to be unworthy recipients of His grace. They press on because they believe God’s truth will triumph over Satan’s error.
The Church has always had a fight on its hands. It always will. Each faithful congregation is an outpost, an embassy of the Kingdom of God and will always find opposition from those who oppose the Gospel. It is nothing new.
In 1874, the Revd John Charles Ryle, future 1st Lord Bishop of Liverpool, wrote the following words in what became the book, Knots Untied. These words are still perceptive and instructive.
Perhaps they will be an encouragement to you.
“It is very certain that a sensible and well-instructed layman can do an immense deal of good to the Church of England,—can check much evil and promote Christ’s truth, if he will only hold his ground and use all lawful means. Public opinion is very powerful. Exposure of extreme malpractice has a great effect. Bishops cannot altogether ignore appeals from the laity. By much importunity even the most cautious occupants of the Episcopal bench may be roused to action. The press is open to every man. In short, there is much to be done, though, like anything else that is good, it may give much trouble. And as for a man’s own soul, he must be in a strange position if he cannot hear the Gospel in some Church near him. At the worst he has the Bible, the throne of grace, and the Lord Jesus Christ always near him at his own home.
“I say these things as one who is called a Low Churchman, and as one who feels a righteous indignation at the Romanising proceedings of many clergymen in our own day. I mourn over the danger done to the Church of England by the Ritualism of this day. I mourn over the many driven in disgust out of the pale of our Zion. But Low Churchman as I am called, I am a Churchman, and I am anxious that no one should be goaded into doing rash and hasty things by the proceedings to which I have alluded. So long as we have truth, liberty, and an unaltered Confession of faith in the Church of England, so long I am convinced that the way of patience is much better than the way of secession.
“When the Thirty-nine Articles are altered,—when the Prayer-book is revised on Romish principles and filled with Popery,—when the Bible is withdrawn from the reading desk,—when the pulpit is shut against the Gospel, —when the mass is formally restored in every parish church by Act of Parliament,—when in fact our present order of things in the Church of England is altered by statute, and Queen, Lords, and Commons command that our parish churches shall be given over to processions, incense, crosses, images, banners, flowers, gorgeous vestments, idolatrous veneration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, mumbled prayers, gabbled-over apocryphal lessons, short, dry, sapless sermons, histrionic gestures and postures, bowings, crossings, and the like,—when these things come to pass by law and rule,—then it will be time for us all to leave the Church of England. Then we may arise and say with one voice, “Let us depart, for God is not here.”
“But till that time,—and God forbid it should ever come: till that time,—and when it does come, there will be a good many seceders: till that time let us stand fast, and fight for the truth. Let us not desert our post to save trouble, and move out to please our adversaries, and spike our guns to avoid a battle. No! in the name of God let us fight on, even if we are like the 300 at Thermopylae,— few with us, many against us, and traitors on every side. Let us fight on, and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.
“The good ship of the Church of England may have some rotten planks about her. The crew may, many of them, be useless and mutinous, and not trustworthy. But there are still some faithful ones among them. There is still hope for the good old craft. The Great Pilot has not yet left her. Let us therefore stick by the ship.”
Amen. Let us press on.